When Anaïs de Froissart calls Parisian private investigator Aimée begging for help, Aimée assumes the woman wants to hire her to do surveillance on her philandering politician husband again. Aimée is too busy right now to indulge her. But Anaïs insists Aimée must come, that she is in trouble and scared. Aimée tracks Anaïs down just in time to see a car bomb explode, injuring Anaïs and killing the woman she was with.
Anaïs can’t explain what Aimée just witnessed. The dead woman, Anaïs says, is Sylvie Coudray, her cheating husband’s long-time mistress, but she has no idea who wanted her dead, and Anaïs officially hires Aimée to investigate. As she digs into Sylvie Coudray’s murky past, Aimée finds that the dead woman may not be who Anaïs thought she was. Her Belleville neighborhood, full of North African immigrants, may be hiding clues to Sylvie’s identity. As a prominent Algerian rights activist stages a hunger protest against new immigration laws, Aimée begins to wonder whether Sylvie’s death was an act of terrorism, and who else may be at risk.
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Aimée Leduc's cell phone rang, startling her, as she drove under the leafy poplars tenting the road to Paris. For a moment she'd felt as if she were flyingflying into spring, away from the winter, when her broken body needed to heal.
Aimée groped around in her backpack until she found her phone wedged next to her ultrablack mascara. Freeing it from her extra sweater, snarled on a software encryption manual, she finally flicked it open.
"Aimée!" shouted a woman's voice. "It's Anaïs."
"Ça va?" Aimée said, surprised to hear the voice of her friend Martine's sister. In the background Aimée heard loud voices. "Anaïs, let me call"
"You have to help me," Anaïs interrupted.
Several years had passed since Aimée had seen her. "What's the matter, Anaïs?"
"I'm in trouble."
Aimée pushed her black sunglasses down on her nose and ruffled her short, spiky hair. How typical of Anaïseverything revolved around her. A dull pewter sky blanketed the suburb of Aubervilliers. Within minutes the sky opened, and rain blanketed the road.
"Right now I've got to drop some work off, Anaïs," she said with growing impatience.
"Martine talked to you, didn't she?" Anaïs asked.
Impatience turned to guilt. Despite her promise to do so, she'd never called Anaïs after Martine spoke withher. Anaïs suspected her husband, a government minister, of having an affair. Computer security, Aimée had protested, was her fieldnot spousal surveillance.
The phone reception wavered and flared.
"Right now it's difficult," she said. "I'm working, Anaïs."
She didn't want to interrupt her work. Thanks to a client referral, she was dropping off a network systems security proposal at the Electricité de France. Aimée prayed that this would get Leduc Detective back on its feet after a lean winter.
"Please, we have to meet," Anaïs said, urgency in her voice. "Rue des Cascades ... near parc de Belleville." Anaïs's voice came and went like a piece of laundry whipping in the wind. "I need you."
"Of course, as soon as I finish. I'm on the outskirts of Paris," Aimée said. "Twenty kilometers away."
"I'm scared, Aimée." Anaïs was sobbing now.
Aimée felt torn. She heard a muffled noise as if Anaï's had covered the receiver with her hand.
Birds scattered from hedgerows. Along the gully budding daffodils bowed, skirting a mossy barge canal. Aimée pressed the Citroën's pedal harder, her cheek reddening in the whipping wind.
"But Anaïs, I might take some time."
"Café Tlemcen, an old zinc bar, I'm in the back." Anaïs's voice broke. "... get caught.... "Aimée heard the unmistakable shrieking of brakes, of shouting.
"Anaïs, wait!" she said.
Her phone went dead.
More than an hour later, Aimée found the café with dingy lace curtains. She eased out of her partner's Citroën, which was fitted to accomodate his four-foot stature, and smoothed her black leather pants.
Strains of Arab hip-hop remix drifted in from the street. The narrow café overlooked rue des Cascades; no entrance to a back room was in evidence at first glance. Pinball machines from the sixties, their silvered patina rubbed off in places, stood blinking in the corner.
Aimée wondered if she'd made a mistake. This didn't seem the kind of place Anaïs would frequent. But she remembered the panic in Anaïs's voice.
Apart from a man with his back to her, the café's round wooden tables were empty. He appeared to be speaking with someone who stood behind the counter. Old boxing posters curled away from the brown nicotine-stained wall. She inhaled the odor of espresso and Turkish tobacco.
"Pardon, Monsieur," she said, combing her fingers through her hair. "I'm supposed to meet someone in your dining room."
As he swiveled around to look at her, she realized that there was no one else behind the counter. He put down a microphone, clicked a button on a small tape recorder, and cocked a thick eyebrow at her.
"Who would that be?" he said, amusement in his heavy-lidded eyes. His thinning gray hair, combed across his skull, didn't quite cover the bald top of his head.
A long blue shirtsleeve pinned to his shoulder by a military medal concealed what she imagined were the remains of his arm. Behind the counter sepia photos of military men in desert jeeps were stuck in the tarnished, beveled mirror.
"Anaïs de ..." She stumbled trying to remember Anaïs's married name. She'd been to their wedding several years ago. "Anaïs de Froissartthat's it. She said she'd be in the back room."
"The only back room here is the toilet," he said. "Buy a drink, and you can meet who you like there."
A frisson of apprehension shook her. What was going on?
"Perhaps there's another Café Tlemcen?"
"Bien sûr, but it's three thousand kilometers from here, near Oran," he said. "Outside Sidi-bel-Abbès, where I lost my arm." He nodded to his tape machine. "I'm recording the truth about the Algerian war, anticolonial struggles from 1954-61, and how our battalion survived OAS friendly-fire bombardment."
Why had Anaïs suggested this place? Had she made a mistake?
Aimée stepped closer to the counter. "I might have misunderstood my friend. Did a woman use your telephone recently?"
"Who are you, Mademoiselle, if I may ask?"
"Aimée Leduc." She pulled a damp business card from her bag and laid it on the sticky zinc counter. "My friend sounded agitated on the phone."
He studied her, his hand wiping a falling strand of hair back over the bald dome of his head. "I've been busy with deliveries."
"This isn't like my friend Anaïs," she said. "She was very upset. I heard car brakes, loud voices." She searched his face, trying to ascertain if he was telling the truth.
He hobbled out from behind the large chrome espresso machine to where she stood.
"A blond, wearing designer clothes and gold chains, came in," he said. "She looked like she'd made a wrong turn coming out of the Crillon."
That must have been Anaïs. Aimée maintained her composurethis man was proving to be a helpful observer.
Torn between searching for Anaïs and hoping she'd return, Aimée decided to wait. She drummed her chipped red nails on the counter. She remembered Martine complaining about her sister: It was always hurry up and wait.
"Did you see her leave, Monsieur?"
He shook his head.
She was dying for a cigarette. Too bad she'd quit five days, six hours, and twenty minutes ago.
"She told me to meet her here. She'll be back."
"Doubt it," he said, studying her as if coming to a decision.
"She gave me a hundred francs," he said. "Said for you to meet her at 20 bis rue Jean Moinon."
Aimée stiffened. "Why didn't you say so?"
"Had to be sure you're the impatient one with big eyes," he said. "She said to make sure it was you.
He nodded his head toward the street. "She knew she was being followed."
Aimée felt the first hint of fear.
The man gave a half bow. "Retired Lieutenant Gaston Valat SCE, formerly with the intelligence branch of the Franco-Algerian police," he said. He stood to attention as much as a one-armed man with a limp could. He noticed her gaze. "A votre service. Not half bad, eh?"
Not all that surprised by his change of attitude, she figured an old vet like him would welcome action on his doorstep.
"When did Anaïs leave, Gaston?"
"Close to an hour ago," he said.
She shouldered her bag.
"And like I told her," Gaston said, studying her, "adieu."
Aimée hurried into the sheets of rain. Her edgy feeling had been growing all week. Paris was bracing itself for terrorist attacks, the radio warned, due to enforcement of the anti-immigration policy. The flics were nervous and, as Aimée knew, when nervous they tended to overreact. Shopping on the quai, she'd noticed the darting flics' eyes. She'd seen the dark blue suited CRS riot police in her Métro station with machine guns questioning random riders. Even boulangerie patrons in line ahead of her had jumped, startled by the sudden banging of trash cans. It seemed like everyone vibrated with fear.
By the time she reached the boulevard the downpour had ceased. Twilight covered Belleville. Parents tugged children from shop to shop under umbrellas or placated them with baguettes at the crowded bus shelters.
The aroma of cumin from the corner Lebanese restaurant perfumed the rain-freshened air. Aimée had forgotten the bustle and energy in Belleville. African dialects reached her ears. She walked by abandoned, graffiti-covered turn-of-the-century shopfronts. Taxi klaxons honked, and old men bargained in Arabic at fruit stands. Senegalese women clad in bright-patterned clothing and headresses shared the Métro stairs with black-on-black Parisian sophisticates.
A neighborhood of caractère, she thought, but its working-class origins had suffered the onslaught of the trendy. Chunks of the grime-blackened eighteenth-century buildings in Edith Piaf's former neighborhood had either been torn down or renovated.
The saucerlike April moon had risen by the time she'd reached the narrow street. In contrast to the busy boulevard, rue Jean Moinon lay quiet. Aimée paused. The smell of wet dog mingled with rosewater from a nearby passage. She wondered why Anaïs would come here.
The streetlamp's yellow cone of light revealed broken pavement. Parked cars filled one side of the narrow street. Number 20 bis, or 20 and a halfas Aimée remembered her mother explaining the termconsisted of two floors with many bricked-up windows. That was one of the few things she recalled her American mother joking about. Number 7 bis, their old apartment, had been referred to by her mother as "half here and half not, like me." Not long after that, when Aimée was eight, her mother had tacked a note on the apartment door telling her to stay with the neighbor until her father came home. Her mother had never returned.
Aimée stood back and looked up at the nineteenth-century building. Dark and silent. Only one floor had open windows, their shutters weathered and broken. No concierge or gardien. Just a massive wooden door defaced by silver graffiti.
Gaston could have given her the wrong address.
Had Anaïs ever comeor had she already left?
Aimée didn't know the code for entry so she rang the service bell. She waited, watching the streetlight's reflection dance in the oily puddles between cobbles. Opposite, several buildings advertised apartments to rent.
No answer. She shifted in her boots, looked around. The street was deserted. Apprehensive, she felt like leaving.
Aimée walked up the uneven pavement to the end of the street, regretting her impulsiveness in following Anaïs's trail. This wild goose chase had led nowhere. She wanted to kick herselfwhy had she agreed to help? She needed to hustle for the EDF contract!
Spousal surveillance really wasn't her field. Next time she'd think twice before she ran into the rain. She turned to retrace her steps. On her way back to the car she'd try one more time.
In the distance she saw two women emerge from the door of 20 bis. Aimée recognized one as Anaïs, her blond hair illuminated by the streetlight. The other, a dark-haired woman, wore a shiny black raincoat that swung as she moved. The woman opened the driver's door of the car parked in front, reached in, then shoved something across the car's roof to Anaïs, who waited on the curb.
As Aimée walked closer, she saw that the car was a powder blue Mercedes. Anaïs stuck the object in her shoulder bag, put on her sunglasses, then rushed off without saying good-bye. Odd, Aimée thought, since it was dark and rainy.
"Anaïs!" Aimée called out, hurrying to catch up with her.
Anaïs turned, noticed Aimée, and waved in recognition.
Strains of Arabic music suddenly blared from nearby, loud and piercing. "Shut that crap off!" someone shouted from a window.
The dark-haired woman slammed her car door and started her engine, and with a blinding flash the Mercedes exploded. With a deafening roar, the car burst into a white-yellow ball of flame. Aimée faltered, and everything seemed to move in slow motion, but it could only have been microseconds. Terror flooded her. Tires and doors blew off like missiles, into the stone buildings. She saw Anaïs rise in the air, as if she were flying, then disappear. The ground reverberated.
The pressure wave knocked Aimée off balance in mid-dive, as she aimed for the nearest car. The backdraft sucked the air as if trying to vacuum her body into a smaller space. Tighter than she could stand. Steel fragments and bloody viscera rained over the street.
Aimée landed on wet cobblestones praying that nothing else would explode. Her heart hammered. She tried to cover her head with her hands. Memories of the Place Vendôme terrorist explosion that killed her father came back: his burned body ejecting from the surveillance van, her hand holding the molten door handle, and the fireball that engulfed the van as it smashed into the Place Vendôme column.
And then she realized the dangergas tank vapors from the parked cars could ignite from the flames. She pulled herself up. Made her legs move. Made them go past the Mercedes's metal skeleton, burning furiously and bulging like an accordion. The intense heat singed her eyebrows. She had to find Anaï's, get out of here.
Her ears rang, and she choked on the billowing smoke. She tripped on the cobblestones, greasy with oil and antifreeze. Her hands were bloody and shaking. Like five years ago when her father had been blown up in front of her eyesthe same horrible nightmare.